In the days since the capture of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, much of the nation’s attention has turned, or returned, to the question of the death penalty. Massachusetts state legislators debated but ultimately shelved a proposal to reinstate capital punishment. We can expect the debate to continue in greater earnest in the months ahead.
Not coincidentally, my eyes were drawn to the end of this week’s parshah, Emor, and the episode of the blasphemer (Leviticus 24:10-23). After his public crime, he is placed in custody until God’s decision “should be made clear to them.” Rashi says the lack of clarity was as to whether this offense was punishable by death by any means. That uncertainty is clarified immediately: “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him” (24:13-14).
There must be some lesson in the Torah’s wording here. Moshe himself is to bring out the accused. Then, those within earshot of the crime are to “lay their hands upon his head.” Finally, the whole community is to stone him. Really? The whole community? That’s a gargantuan task, isn’t it, given that there are more than 600,000 men of military age, let alone women, children, and older men?
The notion of a wholly public execution is meant to stagger us, to jar us. Why do you think that the Torah makes this demand? Is it to be taken literally in applying the law, and can American society learn anything from it?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at how some traditional commentators understood this instruction, and how it can inform our justice system.
Rabbi David Wise